Trump and conservatism

It was surprising to read a highly critical polemic about President Donald Trump in the pages of The American Conservative, the small periodical cofounded by proto-Trumpian commentator Pat Buchanan.  On the outskirts of mainstream conservatism, the magazine has gotten a boost in visibility from presaging the rise of Trump, with its editorial stance closely aligned with the president's nationalist predilections.

That's not to say that TAC hasn't been critical of Trump.  Its writers have raised legitimate concerns over the president's decidedly un-Burkean temperament.  Trump is nobody's idea of a cerebral conservative, taking in history's triumphs and failures before proposing policy.  He's a visceral guy with a gut that makes decisions and a mind that justifies them afterward.

That kind of personality in charge of anything, let alone the most powerful government on Earth, is alarming.  But that's not the criticism leveled by one writer.  Rather, the tack taken by Andrew Bacevich in "Conservatism After Trump" is one of fevered disgust at our new president.  Citing  H.L. Mencken, Bacevich rages against Trump's brazen defiance of political norms, his cavalier disregard of clear boundaries between public office and private treasury, and his ignorance of the office he now holds.

These qualities actually won Trump the White House.  But it came at the expense of coarsening and abasing political norms.  For stability's stake, Bacevich argues, this isn't good, and conservatives "must view the ongoing demolition with dismay."

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledges the ineptitude of Republican Party leaders as the prime weakness Trump exploited to take control of the party and, ultimately, the Oval Office.  "Trump's success in hijacking the GOP has exposed the emptiness of that party's claim to uphold conservative principles or any principles whatsoever," he writes.

But the failure of a party, claims Bacevich, does not justify Trump as president.  Bacevich has two primary concerns for the new administration: first, the fragile state of the Constitution under a president who probably can't name the article that outlines the powers of his own office, and second, the reputation of conservatism as a philosophy, which is losing luster with every inch Trump's favorability rating ticks down.

To protect both document and doctrine, Bacevich offers a radical strategy: stop Trump by any lawful means, including removal from office.  These words beggar belief: "So if an establishment press that has long leaned left has now abandoned any pretense of evenhandedness, good.  If the proponents of multiculturalism, diversity, and other hallmarks of ostensibly enlightened thinking fill the streets to denounce Trump as a proto-fascist, better.  If opposition to Trump's clownish presidency ultimately succeeds in bringing it down, that will be best of all."

This, from someone who claims the mantle of Burke.  Not only does Bacevich advocate toppling a lawfully elected leader, but he cheers on the miscreants turning city streets into violent Hobbesian free-for-alls in the name of "resistance."

For someone who claims to be on the side of prudent conservatism, Bacevich's proposal reeks of Sartreism.  His call to arms isn't an impassioned plea to reach across the political aisle and ally against a despot.  It's a pathos-driven rage to toss off an administration that has yet to commit (with one quickly rectified exception) any major errors.

Plenty of traditional-minded conservatives have made well thought out arguments on why President Trump is an untrustworthy figure.  Many of these writers, though they sympathized with the then-candidate's attacks on the out-of-touch Washington establishment, didn't cast a ballot for him in November.  They were not concerned with the danger the billionaire posed to D.C.'s neoliberal consensus, but rather what would come after it, should he succeed in disfiguring it completely.

Rod DreherRoss DouthatCharles MurrayJ.D. VanceMichael Brendan DoughertyBill Kaufman, and others have appealed to institutional order to make a case against a president so inexperienced and mercurial as Trump.  Bacevich's case is similar to theirs, his histrionics notwithstanding.

There's just one problem with these arguments: the intermediary institutions that coax the democratic machinery in this country are rotting.  This hollowing out of our most basic institutions has been happening for some time.  The people's lack of faith in Congress, the media, the school systemcorporations, and the church created an environment ripe for someone outspoken and unorthodox to rise to power.

When you lack confidence in what's supposed to work, you turn to someone who promises something different.  In the parlance of economics, Trump is a market correction to a system that lost its bearings.

Back in 2015, when the prospect of a billionaire populist leading a hostile takeover of the government was becoming more fact than fiction, Frank Rich wrote a piece for New York magazine applauding Trump's rise.  Rich is a liberal's liberal.  But even he realized how sclerotic both major parties had become.  Before winning a single primary, Rich argued, Trump "performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share."

That that foolishness extended far into the general election and, improbably, handed Trump the White House was not something Rich expected, or even favored.  But it proved the power of his thesis: a celebrity real estate developer hijacked the biggest political prize of all from a litany of others who were more qualified, more intellectually gifted, and more astute to the art of politics than him.

What could be more indicative of a need to recalibrate our assumptions about Americans' shared life?

Bacevich's worries, therefore, are misguided.  The Constitution is a fragile document, but it's still law.  Should Trump usurp it, it won't be because he's a tyrant.  It will be because the Congress, the courts, the media, and the people have ceased to be checks on an office they've all spent a century-plus aggrandizing.

Conservatives, unlike liberals, deal in truth.  President Trump should have been the biggest wake-up call of all to how flawed our political priors are.  Instead, commentators of all stripes have doubled down on the same tired arguments they've deployed for decades.

It was surprising to read a highly critical polemic about President Donald Trump in the pages of The American Conservative, the small periodical cofounded by proto-Trumpian commentator Pat Buchanan.  On the outskirts of mainstream conservatism, the magazine has gotten a boost in visibility from presaging the rise of Trump, with its editorial stance closely aligned with the president's nationalist predilections.

That's not to say that TAC hasn't been critical of Trump.  Its writers have raised legitimate concerns over the president's decidedly un-Burkean temperament.  Trump is nobody's idea of a cerebral conservative, taking in history's triumphs and failures before proposing policy.  He's a visceral guy with a gut that makes decisions and a mind that justifies them afterward.

That kind of personality in charge of anything, let alone the most powerful government on Earth, is alarming.  But that's not the criticism leveled by one writer.  Rather, the tack taken by Andrew Bacevich in "Conservatism After Trump" is one of fevered disgust at our new president.  Citing  H.L. Mencken, Bacevich rages against Trump's brazen defiance of political norms, his cavalier disregard of clear boundaries between public office and private treasury, and his ignorance of the office he now holds.

These qualities actually won Trump the White House.  But it came at the expense of coarsening and abasing political norms.  For stability's stake, Bacevich argues, this isn't good, and conservatives "must view the ongoing demolition with dismay."

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledges the ineptitude of Republican Party leaders as the prime weakness Trump exploited to take control of the party and, ultimately, the Oval Office.  "Trump's success in hijacking the GOP has exposed the emptiness of that party's claim to uphold conservative principles or any principles whatsoever," he writes.

But the failure of a party, claims Bacevich, does not justify Trump as president.  Bacevich has two primary concerns for the new administration: first, the fragile state of the Constitution under a president who probably can't name the article that outlines the powers of his own office, and second, the reputation of conservatism as a philosophy, which is losing luster with every inch Trump's favorability rating ticks down.

To protect both document and doctrine, Bacevich offers a radical strategy: stop Trump by any lawful means, including removal from office.  These words beggar belief: "So if an establishment press that has long leaned left has now abandoned any pretense of evenhandedness, good.  If the proponents of multiculturalism, diversity, and other hallmarks of ostensibly enlightened thinking fill the streets to denounce Trump as a proto-fascist, better.  If opposition to Trump's clownish presidency ultimately succeeds in bringing it down, that will be best of all."

This, from someone who claims the mantle of Burke.  Not only does Bacevich advocate toppling a lawfully elected leader, but he cheers on the miscreants turning city streets into violent Hobbesian free-for-alls in the name of "resistance."

For someone who claims to be on the side of prudent conservatism, Bacevich's proposal reeks of Sartreism.  His call to arms isn't an impassioned plea to reach across the political aisle and ally against a despot.  It's a pathos-driven rage to toss off an administration that has yet to commit (with one quickly rectified exception) any major errors.

Plenty of traditional-minded conservatives have made well thought out arguments on why President Trump is an untrustworthy figure.  Many of these writers, though they sympathized with the then-candidate's attacks on the out-of-touch Washington establishment, didn't cast a ballot for him in November.  They were not concerned with the danger the billionaire posed to D.C.'s neoliberal consensus, but rather what would come after it, should he succeed in disfiguring it completely.

Rod DreherRoss DouthatCharles MurrayJ.D. VanceMichael Brendan DoughertyBill Kaufman, and others have appealed to institutional order to make a case against a president so inexperienced and mercurial as Trump.  Bacevich's case is similar to theirs, his histrionics notwithstanding.

There's just one problem with these arguments: the intermediary institutions that coax the democratic machinery in this country are rotting.  This hollowing out of our most basic institutions has been happening for some time.  The people's lack of faith in Congress, the media, the school systemcorporations, and the church created an environment ripe for someone outspoken and unorthodox to rise to power.

When you lack confidence in what's supposed to work, you turn to someone who promises something different.  In the parlance of economics, Trump is a market correction to a system that lost its bearings.

Back in 2015, when the prospect of a billionaire populist leading a hostile takeover of the government was becoming more fact than fiction, Frank Rich wrote a piece for New York magazine applauding Trump's rise.  Rich is a liberal's liberal.  But even he realized how sclerotic both major parties had become.  Before winning a single primary, Rich argued, Trump "performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share."

That that foolishness extended far into the general election and, improbably, handed Trump the White House was not something Rich expected, or even favored.  But it proved the power of his thesis: a celebrity real estate developer hijacked the biggest political prize of all from a litany of others who were more qualified, more intellectually gifted, and more astute to the art of politics than him.

What could be more indicative of a need to recalibrate our assumptions about Americans' shared life?

Bacevich's worries, therefore, are misguided.  The Constitution is a fragile document, but it's still law.  Should Trump usurp it, it won't be because he's a tyrant.  It will be because the Congress, the courts, the media, and the people have ceased to be checks on an office they've all spent a century-plus aggrandizing.

Conservatives, unlike liberals, deal in truth.  President Trump should have been the biggest wake-up call of all to how flawed our political priors are.  Instead, commentators of all stripes have doubled down on the same tired arguments they've deployed for decades.